Dispatches From The 2021 Sundance Film Festival
Hey! Fletcher here. This is where you'll find my regular updates on what I'm watching at this year's Sundance Film Festival. I'll update a few times each day through Wednesday, February 3rd. You can also check out the Sundance movies that are screening here in Wichita by going to the mama.film website, or see what options you have for watching at home through the Sundance Film Festival's site.
7:52 p.m. (and my final entry)
And so, my festival ends the way it began for a lot of people, with CODA, which likely would have blown the roof off the theater at opening night, and kind of proved it by winning the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Award, Audience Award, Directing Award, and a Special Jury Prize for Best Ensemble Cast. (For what it's worth, I didn't catch it opening night because I was watching Summer of Soul..., and about that, I have no regrets.) This is exactly the kind of crowd-pleaser that's going to kill at a festival, and, really, for good reason. It's pretty wonderful.
CODA is the story of Ruby, a teenage girl who's the only member of her family who isn't deaf. She works with her father and brother on a fishing boat in Gloucester, Mass., her mother keeps the books, and they're struggling. The fishing business is hard, their operation is tiny (it's just the family), and she's stretched thin between her family, their work, and high school. At school one day, she sees a boy she likes signing up for choir, on a whim she signs up, too, and wouldn't you know it, she's pretty great at singing.
The basic story is one we know, where a young person has something they love doing, but they're obstructed by family matters, whether those are cultural constraints, societal constraints, or something else (think Bend It Like Beckham or Billy Elliot). In this case, it's her family's genuine need for her help in communicating with the hearing world, and she feels an obligation despite her burgeoning love of music. (The title is a reference to music, of course, but also stands for "Child of Deaf Adult.")
CODA hits all the right notes for that kind of story, and is rousing in the way the best examples of this are, but it does it in a bit of a quieter way, understandable given that so much of the film is in sign language. It's quite funny, and tender, and there are some extraordinarily touching moments late in the film that highlight the strengths of using a cast that includes a number of deaf members without it being treated like a novelty. (Nor is it treated like it doesn't matter-- it does matter, as we see how ill-equipped our world is to deal with people who are just very slightly set up in a different way.) This film will hit a real sweet spot for a whole lot of people.
What do you do when you have no choice but to live with your ghosts?
Fahrije, the woman at the center of Hive, lives in a small town in Kosovo, populated with old men, children, and the widows of men lost in the war with Serbia years before. Or, presumed widows, as many of the men went missing and have never been found. But it's difficult to heal when those wounds can't be closed-- not knowing what happened to the town's men leaves those left constantly wondering, some of them still hoping, few of them healing.
And despite the lack of men, this is still an extremely patriarchal society, with women being controlled by the fathers of their lost husbands, or simply by the pressures put on them by the other people in the town. Fahrije causes a small scandal when she gets her driver's license, and even more of one when she determines the women who live there need some source of income, as everyone is struggling to get by, and when her honeybees stop being productive, she resolves to start a business with the women selling homemade ajvar (a condiment made with roasted red peppers). A few of the women are on board, a few have to be dragged along, but she makes a connection with a local grocery store (also a source of contention in the town) and takes the steps to begin.
Hive is the directorial debut for Blerta Basholli (and it won her the festival's Grand Jury Prize, Audience Award, and Directing Award), and she's based it on the true story of a woman she actually knows. And while the film is inspiring, in that Fahrije's resolve is so impressive, it's also a haunting, sad portrait of what a community looks like when one entire section of it is completely removed and that wound isn't stitched up. Yes, we deeply admire what Fahrije, and eventually the other women, makes happen through sheer determination, but this isn't a stand-and-clap crowd pleaser. She does this because she must, and she does this with the ghosts of the missing all around her.
Flee, which won this year's Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary, steps outside the conventions of what we sometimes consider "documentary" (Sundance is admirably progressive in its attitude toward the designation) to let "Amin," an Afghan refugee in Denmark, tell the heretofore secret story of his flight from his home country to Copenhagen. It is a true story, although what we see is mostly an animated recreation of both what Amin (likely not his real name) went through, and the interviews in which he describes his ordeal. Amin has asylum in Denmark under false pretenses (although you'd figure his story is harrowing enough), and faces the possibility of deportation if he's found out, and so this use of animation is clever in that it gives us a different take on the documentary, but also conceals Amin's identity.
At any rate, what we get is a smart, compassionate, complex, difficult story of a child fleeing civil war, the extremely trying path of a refugee, and the hidden life of a gay man coming from a society that apparently didn't even have a word for such a person. I've said before, even during this festival, that the capacity for a person to keep going in the face of unimaginable pressure is astounding, and seeing such a specific and immediate telling of the one-step-forward-four-steps-back journey of a refugee through constant danger and finally to safety is a heavy but rewarding experience. And this is also the story of a man working through who, exactly, he can be now that he's not in the same danger-- even though the existential danger ended for him years ago, the residue of that trauma and his need to conceal his true story has taken such deep root in him that he struggles to anchor himself to who or what he "really" is now. Flee is a remarkable achievement, and yet another example of how there are a lot of different ways to show us the truth.
Sundance announced the festival award winners last night, and you can find the full list here, but the big winners were pretty clearly CODA (U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, Audience Award, Directing, and Special Jury Prize for Best Ensemble), Hive (World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, Audience Award, and Directing), and Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize, Audience Award). The Grand Jury Prize for World Documentary went to Flee, which played early in the festival and people were very excited about, but which I didn't get a chance to see. Impressively, I also didn't see CODA or Hive, and so my slate for this last day of the festival is pretty obvious, I'll be watching those three films, which should send me off with a bang.
Tonight at the Starlite Drive-In:
At the Ready (6:25)
Tickets through mama.film
The World to Come is adapted by director Mona Fastvold from a short story by Jim Shepard, and it shows as well as anything I've seen in a while both the pitfalls and the benefits of fully embracing a movie's literary source. The film is made of journal entries by a woman named Abigail (Katherine Waterston), who lives with her husband (Casey Affleck) in a fairly remote area, one with other families nearby, but which seems to be far from a city. The conceit is presumably lifted from the source material (if it's not, my entire premise goes out the window), as is (presumably) the near-constant voiceover from Abigail, verbalizing those journal entries. Not long into the film, she meets Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), who has come to the area with her husband (Christopher Abbott), which stirs something inside Abigail, something Tallie is perfectly happy to entertain.
The film is beautifully shot and has a nicely subdued tone, and the romance that develops between the women feels real-- it's passionate but unsensational, not remotely melodramatic, feeling like something that might occur in a life lived at this pace (although it kicks off quite quickly).
That voiceover, though. For longer than I'd like, it kept me removed from the emotion of the movie-- I liked the quietness of it, but the language used felt overly affected, not heartfelt or natural, and the continuous nature of Abigail's words felt like a crutch. And then, at some point, this changed. It felt like Fastvold actually leaned harder into the literary aspect, and the voiceover and the "journal" developed a rhythm that started to make the movie fly. Somehow, the thing that had kept me at arm's length began to be the thing that was bringing me on board. I still want to acknowledge that it doesn't all work entirely-- some of the dialogue doesn't sound at all right coming out of these characters' mouths, and some of the plot point weren't completely clear. But it did pull me in, and this turned out to be romance that I found quietly humane, one that still feels like a classic romance, with its desire, and longing, and sadness, and its bittersweet memories, and also one that feels faithful to the spirit of its inspiration.
Isolation is going to be a major theme in filmmaking for a long time to come, and that was already going to be the case pre-pandemic. We're still in the early stages of figuring out and understanding just what impact our ultra-connected-but-somehow-completely-disconnected internet existence is going to have on us and our interactions with others, and it's a question that we can see artists trying to work out in real time.
We're All Going to the World's Fair is a tiny but impressively perceptive movie from director Jane Schoenbrun about some part of that confusion, about our loneliness despite (because of?) instant connection, and the stories we invent around the tiny bits of information we get from other people through our computers. Most of the movie is focused on the face of Anna Cobb, who plays a teenager named Casey who sets out to play a sort of "horror game" that was birthed on the internet, but very much involves real life. Basically: she records herself reciting a phrase three times, watches a video, and then waits to see what happens.
Yes, this sounds familiar, but this doesn't go where this sort of movie typically goes, and what we see is a smart, deeply sad examination of our anxieties, how the internet rabbit hole creates a rapid anxiety feedback loop, and how tiny little connections with other people can actually be incredibly damaging, as we fill in the massive information gaps that surround those people. Where this all ends up isn't exactly surprising, except in that it's not what we're trained to expect from a movie like this. We're All Going to the World's Fair isn't something I'd usually choose to watch, but it's a good example of a film festival prodding me to go outside what I think I know about a certain kind of movie, and reminding me that I'm not always getting what I think I'm getting. It's good, and I hope it finds its way to an audience.
It's a loose day today, with only a few scheduled films ahead of tonight's announcement of the festival winners and tomorrow's final day of the festival. The only one I have scheduled is The World to Come, a period romance from Norwegian director Mona Fastvold, based on a Jim Shepard short story. Other than that, today is a chance for me to catch up on anything I missed over the past couple days that people seem to be talking about. So, it'll be a surprise for all of us! Let's see where it goes...
Tonight at the Starlite Drive-In:
Fire in the Mountains (6:15)
Life in a Day 2020 (7:45)
Judas and the Black Messiah (9:25)
Tickets through mama.film
Short entries tonight because both films are out for general release soon and I want to review them in more depth then, but Night of the Kings is a phenomenal tribute to the beauty of storytelling from Ivory Coast director Philippe Lacôte, about a young man sent to a prison where he's thrust into the role of being the storyteller for the man who rules all the other inmates, being forced to participate in the "Night of Roman," where he tells stories in the middle of the cell block for all the other inmates, an event that has seriously ominous tones, though we're not yet sure why. The way the "Roman" plays off the extremely raucous audience, who sometimes develop into a sort of chorus for his tales, is simply magical. This is the sort of movie that hits a lot of my weak spots (in a good way), and it nailed them. Right now it's set for release in about a month, so I'll expand on this then. But you're in for a treat.
No matter where you are, there are thousands of stories you could tell. We have a number of harrowing documentaries about the war in Syria and the struggles of refugees, and those are important, and there will be more, and those will also be important. But in those same places, there are friends, and dreams, and young people growing up. Those things don't exist separately from the difficulties we've seen, but we should realize that they live alongside them.
Captains of Zaatari tells us about some teenage boys in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan who, like a lot of kids around the world, really like soccer. And, like a lot of kids around the world, they want to be soccer stars. They aren't hyperdriven or obsessed, these aren't win-at-all-costs, nothing-else-matters kinds of athletes. They just care a lot about it and want to be good. And they like playing with their friends.
And, really, it's as simple as that. The documentary weaves a lovely spell by not being overly dramatic about it, but also by taking these kids seriously, as athletes and as people. They aren't unusual, except in their circumstances, which does make them very unusual. They want to play on a bigger stage, at large tournaments, but nobody's quite sure how to view them. Can they play as "Syria"? Can they represent a refugee camp in an international tournament? Who, exactly, are they?
At least we know they are friends, who are excited to see each other when they're surprised at the door, who miss each other when they're not around, who feel disappointed when another gets bad news, who tease each other and help each other and talk to each other. That we know what they're going through on a larger scale is incredibly valuable. But that we also get to see who they are each and every day, as they live their lives and hope to do the things kids around the world can do, must be just as valuable.
The tiny hotel at the top of the world has no road.
In a way, this is the central conflict of Fire in the Mountains, the sneakily powerful feature debut from Ajitpal Singh. Chandra owns the Switzerland Homestay, the little hotel in the Himalayas that struggles to attract guests since it's cut off from the main transportation route and has to compete with another hotel which just so happens to be run by the man who seems to have the most control over whether or not a road will ever be built. For much of the film, we see what seems to be a fairly simple domestic drama coupled with stunningly gorgeous shots of the mountainous world, as Chandra and her family do the best they can with what little they're bringing in.
And it is that, a fairly simple domestic drama, but as the film unfolds we begin to see just how much pressure the situation is putting on each member of the family, and just how sad each of them is-- Chandra's husband, Dharam, feels impotent in his ability to change the situation and drinks too much, turns to the prospect of religious deliverance, and flails at Chandra; their daughter is a top-notch student, but gets little approval from Chandra, who's too focused on the hotel and her son; the son has some condition that has cost the use of his legs, so he's confined to a wheelchair and speaks very little, quite obviously terribly unhappy and angry.
Over the course of the film, we can see the toll this is taking on all of them, although it comes on slowly, so much so that it takes a while to become obvious. Chandra seems to be so focused on the road, and her son, that little else matters to her, but her frustration reaches a boiling point, and that fire in the mountains explodes in a remarkable crescendo that incorporates much of what we've already seen, but also elevates it into a knockout of a climax. I didn't realize until the film cut to black just how big of a punch the movie was packing.
I'm looking forward to today.
Fire in the Mountains, the debut feature from Ajitpal Singh. I love, love, love checking out films from non-Western countries, and this one looks like it could be difficult, but beautiful.
Night of the Kings already has a ton of praise from the people who've seen it, and it's right up my alley: a film from Ivory Coast about a new arrival at a prison who becomes the resident storyteller for the inmates' leader.
Judas and the Black Messiah, about Fred Hampton and the man sent by the FBI to infiltrate the Black Panthers, William O'Neal. Already an eye-opening topic, it stars two of the most exciting and interesting young actors working today, Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield.
and, if I can fit it in, Captains of Zaatari, a documentary about teenagers in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan and their love of soccer.
Movies from all over the world. Should be a good day.
Tonight at the Starlite Drive-In:
Misha and the Wolves (6:15)
Tickets through mama.film
Prisoners of the Ghostland is going to make some people very happy. I don't think that describes a lot of people. But the people it describes will know who they are.
This is the English-language debut of prolific Japanese director Sion Sono, and he plops us down in a town that's some combination of an Old West thoroughfare and the Vegas Strip (on a tiny scale), with wooden saloon doors and bold neon lights, filled with gunslingers and samurai and geishas. Nicolas Cage is an imprisoned bank robber who's given the opportunity to win his freedom by finding a missing woman for The Governor, a tall, thin man dressed all in white, who seems to run the town. After Cage is fitted with a black leather bodysuit that contains explosives at the neck, elbows, and... nether regions, he sets off into a wasteland, the Ghostland, in search of the woman, soon coming across a Mad Max-style commune of people who apparently can't leave. And also something about a giant clock? It goes on from there.
Plot coherence (or, sometimes, plot, at all) takes a back seat to, well, basically whatever Sono wants to do at any given time, but this is a feature of the work, not a bug-- as with animation, when anything can happen, it can get exciting, and Sono creates a world of bold colors and wildly odd images that sometimes comes across as live-action anime, sometimes as a drug-induced hallucination. I think Sono probably is doing exactly what he wants to do, it just becomes a matter of whether it's something you're willing to go along with. (For me, it actually wasn't quite delirious enough, but that's because if I'm going to watch excess, I want it to be excessively excessive, and this doesn't quite reach those heights.)
Like I said, I don't think this will apply to a lot of people! But the people who find Sono's film attractive will fall in love. On balance, this isn't quite me, but if it's you, I'm really happy for you.
Unfortunately, I don't want to spend a lot more time on this one than I already spent watching it. The Blazing World was originally a short film that played at Sundance a few years back, and apparently it impressed enough (I haven't seen it) that director Carlson Young has returned with a feature-length version of it. Sadly, it plays exactly like what it is, something that was a short that's been stretched out far too long. More sadly, its visual style is highly ambitious, but not sophisticated or accomplished. And since visual style is more or less all it's got, that's about as big a problem as you can have. These are the kinds of effects you'd expect to see in a short film with no money that gets some interested backers to give the creator more money to see what she could do with it. Essentially, it plays like a 100-minute sizzle reel.
But at that last part, I suppose it succeeds-- I have no doubt Young worked very hard on this and I will at least keep my eyes out for what she might do in the future.
Human relationships are complicated, and there are all different kinds of them, and all sorts of people doing all sorts of things. And yet, we seem to get only a small handful of those in movies, the same ones again and again.
Here is one I admit I haven't thought a lot about, the relationship between a man and his gestational surrogate. And not just a man, but a single man, a single man in his 40s. And her, a woman in her 20s who isn't desperate, but could use the money to go back to school, and who figures this might not be a terribly difficult thing for her to do because she's already given up a child for adoption, when she became pregnant as a teenager.
All of these pieces of the puzzle must be so complex emotionally, and thankfully, Together Together treats them that way. But also thankfully, it doesn't treat them like insurmountable obstacles, they're just parts of lives and parts of what people do.
The two leads in the film, Patti Harrison and Ed Helms, do excellent work, after a bit of a rocky start when the movie introduces itself a little too cutely, and Helms is a little too "Ed Helms." But once we set things up, the film shines, as much of the rest of it is just conversations between the two, as they try to sort out the feelings of what they're going through and who they are at this point in their lives. They aren't cartoon characters, and the situation isn't cartoonish, but neither is it overwhelming. These are human interactions between real people, and gosh it's refreshing to see.
Nor does Together Together fall into what might be a standard trap of creating a romantic relationship between the two. Impressively, it lets their initially (very) awkward interactions develop into a real friendship, and then it lets that be enough. And it also knows that this isn't forever, as no part of life is. Is any of this transcendent? No. But maybe it doesn't need to be. This is a warm, funny film, and one that treats its characters like people, and that's plenty.
Meaning well will get you far in my book. Marvelous and the Black Hole made me nervous at the outset because it was clearly trying so hard that I think beads of sweat might have been forming on my screen. It's the story of Sammy, a 13-year-old who's recently lost her mother, and who's struggling with that and her father's new romance. And it really wants you to know that Sammy is sarcastic and clever, and that the movie is going to be fun and zany, and man, does it strain.
But still, I had the feeling that it had good intentions, even if a misguided notion of how to get there, and as the movie goes along-- and calms the heck down-- my hopes for its good nature were realized, and if it didn't turn into a thoroughly well made movie, it at least showed enough pieces of one that I was won over by its sweetness and creativity.
Sammy meets Margot, a children's magician played by Rhea Perlman, and she begrudgingly develops an apprentice/mentor relationship with the woman, initially to fulfill a class requirement, eventually less begrudgingly and because she's genuinely interested. Sammy has a rich fantasy life, and we see some of those fantasies come to life-- both the kind, quiet ones, and the violent, angry ones-- and for me this is where the movie shines the most. They're wonderful touches in an uneven film.
And, well, Sammy learns what she must, or at least begins to, and if everything isn't resolved by the end, we've at least started to move in that direction, which is how life works. Marvelous and the Black Hole is very definitely the work of a first-time filmmaker (Kate Tsang), but it becomes more confident as it goes along, it reveals some very touching moments, and gosh, it's sweet.
I watched Eight for Silver last night, but Master Blaster didn't lift the embargo until well after I wanted to be in bed, so, quickly: In 1880s England, a landowner massacres a small Roma camp who won't vacate the land (despite their own legitimate claim to it) and so, surprise of all surprises, the land and the people on it are cursed, in this case by the presence of a terrifying and bloodthirsty creature. I'm not sure the word "werewolf" is ever said, although it's certainly implied that's what this is. At least early on.
And early on, the film struggled to get me on board. The dialogue throughout is wooden, and the details are cliched (this movie must now hold the record for most sharp intakes of breath while waking up from a nightmare), and while I can imagine a world where much of this was done as an homage to the proud history of
the horror genre, the film seems so self-serious that it's hard to believe these things were done with anything like that in mind.
But, I have to say, it eventually won me over. At least to some extent. Because the creature, when we finally get to see more of what it is, is... truly strange. And it's kind of exciting. When we first get a glimpse of what we might be dealing with, I sat up and leaned forward. And those cliched elements became less and less important (not that they went away). I was surprised to see that I was fully engaged. Or at least 80 percent engaged.
Now, that's not to say it all made a ton of sense. Sure, people fighting monsters isn't hard to track, but what's going on with the "silver" of the title (it's more than your typical "silver kills werewolves" thing) just seemed like a bit of nonsense, and what, exactly, the rules of this movie are wasn't particularly clear, either.
So, Eight for Silver's got flaws! Plenty of them! And yet, I think I had a pretty good time?
My lineup for today:
Marvelous and the Black Hole, about a teenage girl coping with her mother's death, and who meets a "surly magician," played by Rhea Perlman. Rhea Perlman! Who doesn't love her?
Together Together, stars Ed Helms as a middle-aged single man who hires a surrogate to have a child for him, which may lead to an unexpected understanding between the two.
The Blazing World, which I added to my lineup based almost entirely on the publicity still they use for the movie (click through and look at it), and which I don't want to read much about because it could be wild.
Prisoners of the Ghostland, a "mash-up of Western, samurai, and postapocalyptic thriller" with "extreme violence and gore" that stars Nicolas Cage... uh, yeah, of course I'm watching that one.
Tonight at the Starlite Drive-In:
Tickets through mama.film
Hey, over here.
I... I'm gonna say something... bad... about an Edgar Wright movie.
OK, I really don't want this to be the case. But I think sometimes we need to recognize that a person who loves a band wholeheartedly and unconditionally is not necessarily the best person to make a documentary about that band.
Edgar Wright is a terribly entertaining director-- I've never been one who's gotten on board with calling him "visionary," as some of his biggest fans do, but he's wonderfully creative. And I was really looking forward to his first documentary, The Sparks Brothers, about Russell and Ron Mael, who make up the long-running band Sparks. They're the sort of band that other musicians love, and that people who "know" about can't stop talking about. So, yeah, my hopes for this movie-- that Wright would talk about an incredibly interesting pair of musicians in a way that maybe was different from your standard music documentary-- play a part in this. I figured even if this did turn out to just be a hagiography (which it is), at least it would be one that would belong to Edgar Wright. That's on me, and I'll own up to that.
But it's still true that instead, Wright hits one note, and holds that note for nearly the entire 135-minute running time. When the pitch finally changes (oh so slightly) about two-thirds of the way into the movie, I was so numbed by the drone of that one note that I had a hard time reacting to this (oh so slightly) different content.
Again, I do not want this to have been the case! But when I watched this movie, I didn't think, "this movie could only have been made by Edgar Wright." I didn't even think, "this movie might have been made by Edgar Wright." I thought, "this movie could have been made by any one of thousands of people."
Sparks are great! And Sparks are strange! And for almost the whole film, that's what we're told, by many, many, many musicians and famous people (some of whom we see only once, for about four seconds-- I'm glad so many people like Sparks, or that Edgar Wright has so many friends [whichever it is, maybe both], but it's possible they weren't all necessary?), and we're told little else. Yes, we go through what may be the group's entire discography, but do we learn anything? Well, they're great. And they're strange. And they have never done things the way other people did.
But... why? There has to be something beyond this that has made them so influential to so many other musicians (which they are, and there is). But we rarely touch on that-- we hear, "that bass line, who would do that?" and we move on. What is it? About that bass line? Or what is it, really, about that lyric, other than that no one else would do it?
Yes, I am frustrated. Frustrated by what this could have been. There is absolutely nothing wrong with loving a band, and telling everyone how much you love that band, and getting together everyone you know who loves that band to tell everyone else how much you all love that band. But doing that, and just that, for 135 minutes is not a great documentary. Wright has the ability to have made this something new, something different, something with an exciting narrative or unusual visual style (there are some fun touches! But we've seen it all before), and he still could have told us that Sparks is great. These things aren't mutually exclusive.
In all honesty, I would have gotten a lot more out of a single episode of Song Exploder. And gosh, that's disappointing to say.
There's this thing I drink sometimes, it's called a Monte Carlo, it has rye whiskey, Bénédictine, and bitters. I don't have Bénédictine right now though, I have Cointreau. So I'm not sure what you call this. But it's pretty good, too. Anyway, go Shockers, back to movies now. Can't wait to see what Edgar Wright has in store.
Well, here's the second documentary I've seen at Sundance this year that I wish would have been many hours longer. In this case, partly because of my joy in experiencing the early days of Sesame Street, but also because in order for director Marilyn Agrelo to fit Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street into a feature film length, a whole lot of people had to be cut out of the story. This is a reality of filmmaking, so I don't envy Agrelo and her editors for having to make those decisions, but it's also true that this is an HBO documentary (HBO is also the home of Sesame Street itself these days), and so I wonder if this could have been a larger series.
But those aren't my decisions, just my wishes, and Street Gang, as it is, is pretty wonderful. Style-wise, it's conventional, mostly archival footage and talking head interviews, covering the first 15-or-so years of the children's television phenomenon, and while I knew some of what we see (I was surprised by how many of the clips from the show I actually remember seeing myself as a child), some of it floored me. Learning about the enormous amount of preparation that went into creating the show-- the federal government gave them a lot of money to create a show that might help close a socioeconomic education gap (and, thereby, a racial education gap), which means very specific educational parameters needed to be met, and so much of how the show was set up was optimized to meet those parameters, but at the same time to be completely engaging to the children. On top of that, we see that they discovered children learned even better when the parents watched along, so it also had to engage the parents. How all of this came together is a flat miracle.
But, of course, there were some of the most creative people... ever?... involved, and so they let their minds run wild. As one person says, it was "contained madness." I started to think of Sesame Street as a sort of jazz composition-- there's a certain structure that exists to make sure certain goals are fulfilled, but within that structure the artists were free to do pretty much anything. And what a glorious result.
I feel like in writing this I've actually dulled down Sesame Street, but certainly you don't need my words to know what an extraordinary piece of culture it is, and this documentary revels in the joy of the show's creation. I do wonder if there was more discord at times than the film lets on (RIP Roosevelt Franklin), but I also have to assume that for something this transcendent to exist, there had to be an almost unparalleled level of creative and educational symbiosis.
Look, bottom line: these people are geniuses, and this will make you smile.
A rainy Saturday morning here in Wichita, pretty great for staying in and watching movies! Looks like it should clear up in plenty of time for those of you headed to the Starlite tonight, too.
My lineup for today:
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, a documentary about the genesis of (as you can see) Sesame Street. Do I need to say more? How could I not be excited!
The Sparks Brothers, first documentary from the delightful director Edgar Wright, who you already know from Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and Baby Driver, among other things. This tells the story of the band Sparks, who you might know if you listen to KMUW's Strange Currency, or if you just really tuned in, although they're largely unknown by most people. But hopefully this movie will change that! I'm guessing Jedd Beaudoin is looking forward to this one, too.
Eight for Silver, billed as a "gruesome gothic spin on werewolf lore." Start with Sesame Street, end with blood and guts. Solid day.
<em>Friday, 1/29/21 </em>
Tonight at the Starlite Drive-In:
In the Earth is now the fourth movie I've seen from director Ben Wheatley, and the first three all had things to recommend, even things I really liked about them, but as full movies, they left me disappointed and empty. But somebody got word to him that if you really want to hook me, have a character make a reference early on to "an old folktale," and then send a couple people into some scary woods. You'll have to work pretty hard to lose me after that.
But whaddya know, Wheatley's done it again! Look, as far as it all goes, I guess this is probably the closest I've gotten to feeling like I could recommend a Ben Wheatley movie as a movie (as opposed to telling you I'm impressed by this or that aspect of the movie), but by and large, it's not terribly different from what I've gotten from him before. He gets a ton of mileage out of a handful of people in a relatively small geographic area, there are some laughs that feel inappropriate to laugh at (but are still funny!), there are some wild visuals, a few extremely graphic open wounds, and the whole thing loses a ton of steam partway through and then just gets less and less interesting as it goes on.
Now! There are people who disagree with me and really like him. Which is fine! Of course. It just seems pretty clear to me by now that he's not for me. In the Earth does play reasonably well as a horror film, and for once I actually wanted some of his characters to be ok. It gets at the insanity of isolation, which makes sense since he says he conceived this movie while in COVID lockdown. And those wild visuals I mentioned are REALLY neat to look at, especially right toward the end of the film. You'll notice I've said nothing about the plot, because that wouldn't be fair to anyone watching any Wheatley movie, he certainly doesn't play by the normal rules. But, to me, it is apparent now that he's content to continue playing within his own rules-- he's found what he's comfortable doing, and he's going to keep doing that. And so, I feel like four movies is a fair shot, and until he's definitely showing us something new, I know where I stand on Ben Wheatley.
All that said, this is great:
At first thought, it seems reasonable that science has maybe gotten a bit of short shrift in movies-- it's not the most glamorous thing, sitting in one spot looking really closely at something and reaching for another pipette. And then you see something like Son of Monarchs, and you think, "Well, now, wait, why aren't we seeing more of this?"
It's the story of a Mexican scientist named Mendel and his study of butterflies, specifically why butterfly wings are colored the way they are and the genes involved. And it's also the story of him trying to escape his childhood trauma, when his parents drowned in a flood-- it's not a hard leap to think Mendel would prefer to be one of those majestic monarchs instead of the tormented person he is.
And Son of Monarchs sings when Mendel is in the lab. I haven't seen intense scientific research depicted this way on film before-- it helps that Mendel works with butterflies, so we see extreme close-ups of extraordinary colors, designs, and details, like those tiny little hairs on the butterfly wings. We see scissors cutting open a chrysalis to reveal the beauty inside, and I think I can safely say this is the first time I've been thrilled by watching tiny tweezers pulling the outside layer off of one of those coverings.
But it also feels like director Alexis Gambis didn't want to overindulge in those scenes, and so, for me, he ends up not focusing enough on them. Mendel dealing with his trauma-- with his own distance from other people, with his extremely strained relationship with his brother-- is important to who he is, but it's also something we've seen before. And whether it's important or not, I could feel the movie let down during those scenes, and sometimes it even felt like a distraction, as when Mendel is not-so-successfully relating to his girlfriend. When we have something that truly feels new, the things that don't feel much less interesting.
But still, I do appreciate the film for what it does for its depiction of science, and research, and especially cultural representation in scientific research. Mendel is Mexican, most of the scientists he works with in his lab in New York seem to be immigrants from one place or another, and this reflects the real world and is important to see. Now if we only could have gotten the movie to nerd out a little harder.
What do you do if, as a young person, a mythological Japanese creature called a "baku" comes along and eats your dreams, relieving you of crippling nightmares and changing your life? You devote the rest of that life to tracking down other mythological creatures and giving them safe haven in a cryptid sanctuary, to keep them from black market traders and a U.S. government that wants to weaponize them, naturally.
Cryptozoo is the second animated feature from director Dash Shaw, and much of it follows Lauren, who just so happens to be that person helping these animals, and for most of the movie we go with her as she tracks the baku, who's in danger from some unsavory characters. But I'll be honest, I stopped caring about the story not long in-- at some point it gets pretty silly, and this isn't what you would call a tightly paced or plotted film. Thankfully, what you want from a movie about cryptids is an excuse to show a whole bunch of different cryptids, and so 10-year-old me, who was absolutely obsessed with mythology and fantastic beasts, was delighted by the fact that this is basically what Cryptozoo is.
Yeah, sure, fine, it has a story-- a story that is very adult, by the way, one that 10-year-old me would not have been allowed anywhere near, with sex, and seediness, and violence throughout-- but you can tell Shaw has a ton of fun throwing dozens of different creatures up on the screen from mythological tales around the world: manticores, wendigos, tanukis, goblins, harpies, you name it, and also sticking them in this gritty world he's created around them (there's a sleazy faun who's a black market dealer and a gorgon who wears contacts and tranquilizes the snakes on her head so she can fit in with regular people). And goodness, the animation! The hand-drawn work begins quite bare and stripped down, and slowly becomes more complex as the film progresses, so that at some point every frame is bursting with texture and color. It's something to behold.
So, my advice: don't pay that much attention to what happens, I'm not sure it's worth it. But man oh man, it's fun to watch it happen.
"Hope, hope, hope... is what we have."
That Nelson Chamisa can say those words after the events of President would be nearly unbelievable, if we didn't already have so much evidence that the capacity for people to be resolute in the face of oppression is utterly astounding. As the documentary takes place, Chamisa is the leader of the MDC Alliance in Zimbabwe, the opposition party to the ruling ZANU-PF, which had been Robert Mugabe's party for decades before Mugabe's ouster in 2017 by members of his own party. The film follows Chamisa as he battles Mugabe's replacement, Emmerson Mnangagwa, in a race to be the duly elected president of Zimbabwe.
Mnangagwa says all the right things, that this election will be free, fair, and credible, after the obvious election corruption of Mugabe's rule, but Chamisa argues that Mugabe's own party, which has been in power for 38 years, many of those while Mnangagwa was himself and advisor to Mugabe, cannot be trusted either to run fair elections, or to fix the many problems with the country if they were to win. As Chamisa says, "the mosquito won't cure malaria." And though Mnangagwa continues to talk a good game, it becomes very clear that Chamisa is right about the elections.
Camilla Niellson's film is the sort that makes your stomach turn in knots, as everyone's worst fears are slowly confirmed, but that you can't tear your eyes from. She makes every aspect of the election riveting, from the granular level (disputes over voter roles and the illegal printing of ballots) to the sweeping and heartbreaking (military assaults on demonstrators and accusations of sexual violence perpetrated against poll watchers). It's a political thriller, a scream of frustration, and, somehow, yes, hopeful. Just a little bit with that last part, but it's still there-- Chamisa speaks those words about hope at the end of the film, when he's lost both the election and a court case challenging the obviously fraudulent moves by the "independent" election commission. What do you do when you have such entrenched corruption in a government, at all levels of power, and no apparent recourse? You keep going. What else can you do? You just keep going.
Happy Kansas Day!
Screenings don't start until 11:00 this morning (Park City, Utah, where Sundance is based, is on Mountain Time, so here in CST we have to wait just a bit for them to get going), so I'm just having coffee and catching up on what people thought of the movies I didn't see last night. Sounds like CODA is an enormous crowd-pleaser, those of you who went to see that last night at the Starlite must have had a great experience. I'm really looking forward to seeing that one a bit later in the festival. Tonight's movie at the Starlite, I Was a Simple Man, is by a guy named Christopher Makoto Yogi, I saw an earlier movie of his, August at Akiko's, which was a really lovely, low-key story, so I'm pretty curious about this one. But... I've got a conflict, so I'm going to have to try to catch up with that later in the festival, too.
My lineup for today:
President, a documentary about the struggle for power in Zimbabwe following the ouster of Robert Mugabe
Cryptozoo, an animated film about a zoo for cryptids (you know, like your unicorns, your yetis, your Loch Ness Monsters)... this one could be pretty wild
Son of Monarchs, about a Mexican scientist who dedicates his life to mapping the monarch genome while dealing with his own past trauma
In the Earth, a horror film (maybe?) from director Ben Wheatley, who's someone who loves to play on expectations, and often delivers some shocking moments-- I've seen a handful of his movies, and I haven't fallen in love with any of them, but there's no doubt he's got talent. I'm excited to see if this is the one that tips me over into the Wheatley camp.
<em>Thursday, 1/28/21 </em>
Tonight at the Starlite Drive-In:
Everybody knows that when you make a mixtape, you gotta kick it off with a killer, to grab attention. Same goes for a film festival, and so we kick off Sundance with Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). The documentary is about the mostly forgotten (or, maybe more accurately, mostly erased) 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts that that drew hundreds of thousands of people and brought in some of the biggest names in all of music, including Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Sly Stone, Max Roach, B.B. King, and The Staple Singers, just to name a very few. Tons of footage of the festival was shot, and then lay in a basement for 50 years, only now being seen for the very first time. Which seems insane, although the reasons are depressingly believable, and here we are.
This is the directorial debut of the well known musician Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson (a Philadelphian, Thompson bills his film as "A Questlove Jawn," making use of what must be one of the most entertaining and interesting regionalisms in existence), and he's clearly got a musician's instinct for how to tell a story using momentum, dynamic changes, and rhythm. We get plenty of concert footage, but rather than let this simply be a concert film-- which, believe me, would have been absolutely fine-- he uses the music as a soundtrack for putting the festival in its proper context, with interviews, archival footage, and photographs giving us a sense of a volatile place at a volatile time, with a combustible community being pulled and pushed in many directions. As one person says (paraphrasing), "They might've put on the festival so black folks didn't burn down the city." But, for that summer at least, they had this festival, which we can now see did actually happen, despite any efforts to shove it down the memory hole.
If I have a complaint, it's that this wasn't about eight hours long, but I figure that would have been a harder sell.
There are a lot of great things about seeing movies and film festivals in actual theaters, but one of them is that if something goes wrong, it's someone else's fault. I guess it's good to get my technical problems out of the way on day one-- because of a mistake I didn't even realize I could make, I wasn't able to watch the animated shorts. Quel dommage! I'm hopeful I'll be able to get them up and running tomorrow, but for now I'll just bide my time until Summer of Soul premieres tonight at 9:00.
But at least there's always food! Dinner tonight is leftover chicken pistachio korma I made last night. It's got a nice, subtle flavor, but I think next time I'll use a bit less stock, a touch more cream, and definitely more salt.
Happy (virtual) Sundance, everyone! We're easing in reallllllly slowly today, as feature film screenings don't get started until this evening. I'll be checking out the documentary Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), the debut film from musician Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. In the meantime, I'll try to catch some of this year's animated shorts, and you can listen to my interview with mama.film's Lela Meadow-Conner about what to expect from Wichita's Sundance screenings. I'll be back tonight once we've officially kicked off!